Women in parliament: The glass ceiling?

The whole point about affirmative action is its temporariness till the time women can walk-in to the powerful decision-making corridors without the clutches of quota

Women in parliament: The glass ceiling?

Ever since women’s quota seats have been introduced in Pakistan in federal and provincial legislative bodies, the rhetorical questions on women’s ‘performance’ have been abounding. Everyone seems to have an opinion about the women sitting in the legislature on these seats albeit with little or no knowledge about the actual work being done. The general argument against these seats has been violation of ‘merit’ and the argument that quotas discriminate against elected representatives.

Besides struggling for suffrage, the third wave feminism had started claiming right to govern by the later half of the last century. That’s when the affirmative action came into play. Introduction of quota seats for women in elected bodies was one affirmative action in order to enable women to represent their interests and their perspectives in political decision-making. This was done for a stipulated period of time, after which it was expected that the system would automatically start absorbing women at par with men in decision-making positions. Even after that, less than one in five parliamentarians across the globe are women according to Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU).

Quotas are now being used in more than half of the world’s countries. Pakistan became one of them in 1956, although with only six seats for women. The 1962 Constitution continued it while in 1973, the number of reserved seats was increased to ten, which were kept for ten years or three consecutive elections, whichever occurred later. In 1985 the number was increased to twenty but the quota lapsed in 1988. Throughout 1990s, Prime Ministers from Pakistan Peoples Party and Pakistan Muslim League could not revive quota seats. The demand from women’s movement however, remained and became stronger and louder with every passing day.

In 2000, the quota was increased to 17 per cent at the federal and provincial levels, despite the earlier understanding with the political government in early 1999 for a 33 per cent quota. I still remember the debates at that time about the modality of filling these seats. Women’s rights activists had proposed a host of different options but neither the political parties nor the regime was in a mood to experiment more democratic options for bringing women in the assemblies in unprecedented numbers. It was common in those days for intelligentsia and the political elite to keep talking about how it would be impossible to find so many women who could work in this role new for them.

In the next tenure (2008-2013) women consolidated their position taking advantage of the presence of a supportive Chair -- the first ever woman Speaker. They organised themselves into a Women’s Parliamentary Caucus.

I can also recall how in the 12th National Assembly, women tried their best to work and get their work acknowledged. Women from PPP had been forthcoming like ever, but it was the mass of women from more traditionally right wing parties that had started emerging in the national Assembly as serious players. Discouragement, however, was common from the Chair who used to admonish women into silence reminding them that they did not represent anyone being on the quota seats. The practice continues in an enveloped way from the House if not the Chair.

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In the next tenure (2008-2013) women consolidated their position taking advantage of the presence of a supportive Chair -- the first ever woman Speaker. They organised themselves into a Women’s Parliamentary Caucus, where they would discuss and create consensus on non-contentious issues. But they were still being pushed to the margins when it came to critical issues like domestic violence bill and debate on improving (or repealing) grossly misused blasphemy laws.

Utilising their cross-party camaraderie, women members were able to bring quite a few landmark progressive legislations. They had also started playing their role on issues other than women’s. Thereby, resolving the big question of ‘women’s caucus or caucus on women’s issues?’

They now aggressively claimed their right to govern in practically all fields, rather than working on just women’s issues. Be it the committees on finance or on defence or on parliamentary affairs or on inter-provincial coordination, women were there to play leadership role. In the cabinet positions also, they went much beyond the traditional ‘softer’ areas like women’s development or population welfare. Be it health or education or finance or foreign affairs, they had made their mark.

All these structural gains were reflected in the general elections of 2013 when even the traditionally right wing party like PML-N was seen awarding tickets for difficult seats to women candidates. Ticket was awarded to Dr Shazreh Mansab, not her brother, after her father, the stalwart Rai Mansab Kharal died. She defeated an important and strong candidate, Brig. Ejaz Shah of PTI. Even PTI, usually perceived to be a right-wing reformist party, chose to contest in toughest constituencies through its women.

In the star constituency of Lahore, Mian Nawaz Sharif was fighting a woman candidate from PTI Dr Yasmin Rashid. In another important constituency of Rawalpindi, Hina Manzoor of PTI gave a tough fight to the winning candidate of PML-N and remained runner up with a very close margin. She is now heading her own party, the Front National.

The face of PTI in the parliament is not its firebrand male speakers. It is through technocrats like Dr Shireen Mazari and Munazza Hassan, women who brought the only legislative proposal from PTI in two parliamentary years. Talking about the oversight role of PTI, its women take the cake again with Nafisa Khattak having raised the highest number of questions on the floor of the House from PTI. Dr Arif Alvi was second to her.

Women, however, cannot perform in isolation. If the overall trend of legislative performance is on the decline, women can’t impact it much in a system when their presence in the Houses has been made hostage to the parties’ leadership. Not being ‘electables’ and not having the constituent backing them, are factors that are to the disadvantage of women. Not stipulating a fixed time period for quota seats, not enough legislation and policy-making for more representative modalities of filling quota seats has created a glass ceiling for women. Now they are in good numbers but have little influence on decision-making.

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Current modality of women’s ‘selection’ as opposed to election not only reinforces the patriarchal political structures instead of challenging and breaking them down, it also is not ensuring the representative character that a parliament must demonstrate. We don’t see any representation of peasants or industrial labour or middle class urban professional workers or even the minorities among male parliamentarians either.

It is high time the political parties seriously consider the demand made by Women’s Parliamentary Caucus in 2010 to make it obligatory on all the political parties to award at least 10 per cent tickets to women on winnable seats. It was to my utter shock to hear even some of the women parliamentarians -- one among them a sitting minister -- saying that this proposed obligation should not be acceptable to parties on the grounds that women should compete for tickets on merit not because of being a woman.

The argument is as flawed as Pakistan’s political system. If that should be the case, then the madam minister should not even be in that position on a quota seat.

The whole point about affirmative action is its temporariness till the time women can walk-in to the powerful decision-making corridors without the clutches of quota.

Most important for these quota seats to be effective and empowering mechanism for women is to immediately change the modality and make them directly elected quota seats. Ideally speaking, the quota should be proportionate to women’s percentage in population, i.e. 48 per cent. If not, these seats must be enhanced to at least a measly 33 per cent with obligatory direct elections.

The entire country can be divided into 33 per cent constituencies, so the citizens would cast three instead of two votes. Nothing much complicated about it. Make it more representative by awarding tickets to women from professional classes, peasantry, urban labour and businesswomen.

Bringing in women from powerful families with little belief in gender equality and without going through the election process was bound to end up where we are right now. Villain here is not women’s reserved quota. The villain is the political system based on rent seeking and patronage instead of creating meaningful spaces for women.

Women in parliament: The glass ceiling?